GPS: When it’s time to turn it off

GPS global positioning systems PND personal navigation device navigator

[ Photo courtesy of Jimmy_Joe]

I have long resisted using my car’s built-in GPS navigation system since, as a proverbial proud male, I like to think I know where I’m going. However, last weekend, a trip to Boston, the labyrinthine-road capital of the U.S., convinced me to swallow my pride and give the GPS a try.

I waited until I reached Beantown before enabling the system’s route guidance, after which it quickly lulled me into a blissful state of mindless dependence on its calm female voice. Cambridge to Jamaica Plain? No sweat. Brookline to Faneuil Hall? A breeze.

Handy as the device was for much of the trip, I later found times I would have been better off disregarding or even disabling it. For example, consider two drives I made from my hotel’s Cambridge neighborhood to Jamaica Plain: The first time, the GPS led me there in no time flat. But the next day, departing from nearly the same spot, it sent me on a wicked long route. The difference? Before the second trip, I was parked on the opposite side of the street, facing the opposite direction. Apparently, the GPS’s routing ruled out having me make a minor U-turn, which would have made the shorter route possible. By the time I realized I was on a longer route, it was too late to turn back.

Later that day, heading for a deli in Brookline, I found the town’s main street closed for a local event. As I struggled to find an alternate route, the GPS kept trying to steer me back to the street that was closed. As our Ratings of GPS systems (available to subscribers) show, some models can alert you to changing traffic conditions or let you sidestep certain streets. I don’t know if my new car’s built-in navigation system has those features, but I wasn’t going to hunt for them when I was just minutes from my lunch spot.

At the end of my visit, I let the GPS help me quickly wend my way out of town. Once on familiar roads, perhaps savoring the system’s novelty, I left the GPS on. Hours later, the system vainly tried to direct me to an Interstate I had years ago learned to avoid. Not satisfied at my ignoring its instructions, and even though I was well past its suggested exit, the calm voice urged me to take a subsequent exit and make a u-turn (now it suggests a u-turn!) to return to the Interstate I had “missed.”

I ignored it. Miles later, after I felt the GPS had finally come to accept my decision, it made a last desperate attempt to change my mind, directing me to take a small county road which, I soon figured out, would meet up with—you guessed it!—the Interstate I had twice rejected.

That was when I finally did what I should have done hours earlier upon first reaching familiar roads: I pressed the button to silence that calm voice. The lesson here is to use a navigation system as an aid, not a strict replacement for local knowledge and a little common sense, and to become familiar with the features before embarking on a long-distance trip.

How’s your relationship with your GPS unit? Share your experiences with us below. You might also want to check out the GPS forum maintained by our colleagues in Cars. —Jeff Fox